By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On June 29 the people of the Seychelles Islands, an African nation, will celebrate 39 years of independence from Britain. The Republic of the Seychelles gained independence on June 29, 1976 and is a member of the African Union.
The Seychellois people had lived under a British colonial government for 165 years from 1810 (when the British seized possession from the French) to June 29, 1976. Before the British the Seychelles Islands were colonized by the French. Like many former European colonies, the fate of the Seychelles islands was determined by the whims of the European tribes that battled for possession.
The islands were captured and “freed” several times during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, then officially became British under the 1814 Treaty of Paris. During this time of turmoil in Europe the enslaved Africans on the Seychelles islands never knew if they would wake up on any given day and have to speak English or French.
With the British in control, slavery flourished on the Seychelles islands. Under French colonization there were 2,759 enslaved Africans and by 1818, after less than 10 years of British colonization, there were 6,638 enslaved Africans in the Seychelles.
As in every place where Africans were enslaved, there was resistance. The history of the Seychelles includes a Maroon community led by an African who was a member of the Macondé people captured from Mozambique. This man is described in the Seychelles National Archives as “a Black from the Macondé tribe, aged around 44, with a height of 5.4 and a half feet and he had a tattoo on his face”.
The information from the Seychelles National Archives also recognizes that: “The Black maroons were hunted like wild animals. Very often they were killed and when caught, they were cruelly punished.” There is not much information about this Maroon leader whose name in some documents is given as “Castor”.
However, the Seychelles National Archives acknowledges his existence with this information: “There exists in the upper Anse Aux Pins, on Mahé, a place name Castor, a place with enormous boulders, better known as ‘cap de roches’ in Seychelles and to which access is extremely difficult. This name is linked with the history of maroons in Seychelles, as Castor was the name of a famous Black maroon who took refuge in this place more than 150 years ago.”
There were other Africans who were imprisoned in Mahé, including members of the Ashanti royal family, who the British colonial government kidnapped in Ghana and transported to the Seychelles.
Freedom from enslavement finally came to the African Seychellois in 1837, two years after it was declared in 1835. The National Archives informs that: “Slavery was abolished in 1835 but that was effectively implemented only two years later.”
Following the final emancipation of enslaved Africans in the British Empire in 1838, the British became very self-righteous and began “liberating” the captive Africans from slave ships of other nations. These “liberated” Africans were usually transported to British colonies where they were forced to work on British owned plantations for very meagre wages. This was not much different from the system of chattel slavery which the British had “abolished”. Between 1861 and 1874 approximately 2,500 “liberated slaves” who were “rescued” by British ships patrolling the seas, were taken to provide labour on British owned plantations in the Seychelles.
When the French colonized the Seychelles in 1770 they took enslaved Africans to cultivate the islands. These enslaved Africans were forced to work building the plantation houses where the White slaveholders lived in relative luxury while the enslaved Africans laboured to enrich these human parasites.
In an article published in the New African Magazine, Seychellois writer Tony Mathiot wrote: “In 1772, when the administrator of Mauritius and Reunion, Pierre Poivre, concocted his grandiose scheme to introduce cinnamon to Seychelles, it was slave labour that created the legendary Jardin du Roi, the spice garden at Anse Royal. Later, in May 1780, the ship that the French authorities mistook for a British vessel, where they consequently ordered the destruction of the spice garden, lest the precious spices should fall into enemy hands, was actually a French slave ship flying the British flag and bringing slaves to Mahé. Before the British occupation, slaves from Madagascar and mainland Africa were brought to Seychelles to work on cotton plantations which occupied around 1,600 acres of land on Mahé. In fact, cotton was the first crop to be exported from Seychelles in 1796, two years after the first capitulation of Seychelles to the British. In Seychelles, the Emancipation Act saw the freedom of 6,521 slaves from a total population of 7,500 inhabitants. So it is not hyperbole to say that most of the inhabitants then were slaves!”
After slavery was abolished in the British colonies the British continued to exploit Africans on the continent. In Ghana the Ashanti resisted the British efforts to colonize their country. In an effort to crush this resistance the British kidnapped members of the Asante royal family and transported them to Mahé in the Seychelles.
In 1897 Nana Prempeh I, King of the Asante; his mother, Asantehemaa Yaa Akyaa; his brothers, uncles and several other members of the royal household were taken to Mahé in the Seychelles and kept as prisoners until November 1924.
This outrage led to the war led by Nana Yaa Asentewaa against the British. At approximately 70-years-old, this amazing African woman became leader and commander-in-chief of a resistance movement against the British.
In the 2008 published Encyclopedia of the African Diaspora: Origins, Experiences, and Culture, edited by African Trinidadian history professor, Carol Boyce Davies, the history of that event and Yaa Asantewa’s role is written by Ghanaian scholar Ivor Agyemang-Duah: “She built a personal army of 4,000 and appointed field commanders. The war lasted from April 2, 1900 to March 1901.”
Agyemang-Duah also writes that Yaa Asantewa became a prisoner of war after she was betrayed and captured on March 3, 1901. “A prisoner of war, she was taken to Kumase and eventually sent to Mahé in the Seychelles Islands, where she joined Nana Prempeh and other Asante exiles. She passed away in the Seychelles in 1922 at about 90 years of age.”
The exploitation and oppression of racialized people by White colonists and colonial governments in Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Caribbean and elsewhere is well-documented. The resistance movements and struggles for independence went on for decades before colonized people were able to gain their independence from these colonizers. In the Seychelles Islands the White planter class owned most of the wealth, inherited from their slave owning ancestors and made sure that laws entitled them to continue as a privileged class.
In 1939, the “Planters and Taxpayers Association” was founded by this group to protect the interests and the wealth of the White people who owned the plantations. After the 1939-1945 war, “they also benefited by being granted the vote, which was limited to literate property owners; just 2,000 in a population of 36,000. At the first elections in 1948, most of those elected to the Legislative Council were predictably members of the Planters and Taxpayers Association”.
Two years before in 1937, The League of Coloured People was founded by those who did not benefit from or enjoy White skin privilege to demand a minimum wage, a wage tribunal and free health care for all.
Malcolm James Coe wrote in the Biogeography of the Seychelles Islands, published 1998: “1937 The League of Coloured People was created and laborers’ wages and health care were prominent items on the agenda.” It was this state of affairs that prompted the Seychellois struggle for independence in earnest.
On June 29, 1976, when the Seychelles Islands gained their independence, they were governed by a coalition and included a President and a Prime Minister.
From a time of slavery to independence, this African nation was home to Africans like Castor, who was a Maroon leader and Nana Yaa Asantewa, freedom fighter. Their fighting spirit must have in some way inspired the latter day activists who led their country to independence on June 29, 1976.